Misconception 1: “Central America is an important vector for heroin trafficking.”
If we could snap our fingers and halt all drug trafficking through Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region, it would have no effect on the opioid crisis devastating communities across the United States. U.S. officials estimate that 90 to 94 percent of heroin consumed in the United States today comes from Mexico, which is now producing about 70 tons per year. Another four to six percent comes from Asia, principally Afghanistan, the origin of most heroin consumed elsewhere in the world. About two percent of heroin that reaches the United States comes from Colombia, and a negligible amount is made in Guatemala.
Central America is south of Mexico. Mexican heroin is unlikely to travel south on its way north to the United States. The only portion of U.S. heroin consumption that is likely to transit Central America is the roughly two percent produced in Colombia or Guatemala. The dynamic is similar for methamphetamine, which is overwhelmingly synthesized in Mexico, and fentanyl, which is mostly produced in Asia but passes through Mexico.
By far the main drug that does pass through Central America is cocaine, which is produced in the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. About 90 percent of cocaine seized in the United States in 2015 was of Colombian origin. Of cocaine trafficked to the United States, the State Department reported in March, about 90 percent “first transited through the Mexico/Central America corridor.” Central America’s relevance to the opioid crisis, however, is marginal.
Misconception 2: “Building a wall would greatly reduce heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and fentanyl trafficking.”
Proponents of a border wall often claim that it would help the United States solve its opioid addiction problem by blocking heroin smugglers from Mexico. This reveals a misunderstanding of how cross-border smuggling works.
The vast majority of the drug that enters from Mexico does so through “ports of entry”—the 48 official land crossings through which millions of people, vehicles, and cargo pass every day. “Heroin seizures almost predominantly are through the port of entry and either carried in a concealed part of a vehicle or carried by an individual,” then-U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told a congressional committee last year. “We don’t get much heroin seized by Border Patrol coming through, I think just because there are a lot of risks to the smugglers and the difficulty of trying to smuggle it through,” he said.
“The most common method employed by Mexican TCOs [Transnational Criminal Organizations] involves transporting drugs in vehicles through U.S. ports of entry (POEs),” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported in its 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment. “Illicit drugs are smuggled into the United States in concealed compartments within passenger vehicles or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor trailers,” according to the document.
Heroin is small in volume. “It’s a relatively small amount—40-50 tons, we think—of heroin that feeds the heroin epidemic in the United States,” Gen. John Kelly, then the commander of U.S. Southern Command, told a Senate committee in 2015. The amount has probably increased somewhat today, but still takes up little space: all the heroin consumed in the United States in an entire year could probably fit into two 40-foot shipping containers.
Now, imagine the contents of those containers broken up into tiny amounts and scattered across vehicles, luggage, and cargo shipments and sent through 48 land crossings, plus airports, over the course of 365 days. The difficulty explains why in 2015, the DEA reported that U.S. authorities managed to seize 6.8 tons of heroin, an amount equal to perhaps one-seventh of Gen. Kelly’s demand estimate.
The dynamic is similar for other compact-volume drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl, which are overwhelmingly seized at ports of entry. Cannabis, which is larger and bulkier, appears to be trafficked more frequently in the areas between the ports.
With a small, compact, and expensive product, and a six-sevenths chance of avoiding detection and seizure, it’s unsurprising that most heroin smugglers don’t bother to transport it between the ports of entry, in the sparsely populated or wilderness zones where proposed border fencing might be built.
The ports of entry are a big part of the picture. Yet while the Trump administration is loudly proposing ambitious, expensive wall-building plans, its budget requests would do very little to address the US$5 billion in documented needs, from renovations to staffing, at the ports of entry.
Misconception 3: “Gangs like MS-13 are moving a lot of drugs from Latin America into the United States.”
Central America’s hyper-violent street gangs, especially the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 organizations that originated in the United States, make their money primarily from extortion, in addition to other criminal activities like theft and human trafficking. While they do engage in street-level drug sales in the neighborhoods in which they are active, known as “narcomenudeo,” these gangs are not the ones behind the multi-kilogram or even multi-ton shipments of cocaine that pass through Central America en route to the United States from Andean countries.
“Wholesale” cocaine transshipment is mostly the work of cartels. Amb. William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, makes the distinction:
“There are two driving factors that are creating a vast amount of corruption in Honduras, and quite frankly throughout the Northern Triangle. First are the organized—the transnational criminal organizations, largely drug trafficking. They are professional criminals, and their objectives are economic in nature. The second are the criminal gangs.”
The first group, the drug-transshipment organizations (sometimes called “transportistas”), are also violent in areas that overlap with trafficking routes, but are largely not responsible for the high levels of crime and violence in urban centers. The investigative organization InSight Crime profiles some of those most active in Central America: El Salvador’s Perrones and Texis Cartel; Guatemala’s Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses and Lorenzana, Mendoza, and León crime families; Honduras’s Atlantic cartel, Cachiros, and Valle family; the Reyes Aragón and Reñazco families in Nicaragua; and the Bagdad and Calor Calor gangs in Panama.
These transshipment groups can have a relationship with gangs like MS-13, sometimes hiring gang members as hitmen and providing them with the drugs they sell in the neighborhoods they control. But while the gangs may desire to participate more in large-scale international drug transshipment, they rarely get to do so.
Inside the United States, when Central American gangs sell drugs on the streets, they are not selling drugs that they have brought from the region on their own. Instead, they get their inventory from the cartels, the DEA reports: “The cartels remain the main source of drug supply for the gangs, while the street gangs, prison gangs, and OMGs [outlaw motorcycle gangs] generate street-level sales for the cartels.”
Misconception 4: “Mexico seizes more cocaine than most Latin American nations.”
With so much Andean cocaine flowing through the Mexico-Central America vector, one might expect Mexico to be finding and stopping a large amount of the drug. Seizure data, in fact, indicates otherwise: once smugglers reach Mexico, their probability of losing control of their cocaine drops.
The following list of reported 2016 cocaine plus cocaine base seizures is taken from the text of the State Department’s March 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. It’s notable for a few things. First, Mexico and Honduras—two countries closely aligned with U.S. counter-drug efforts—appear far down the list. Second, these two countries, plus Venezuela, lack reliable current public reporting on cocaine flows and seizures. And third, proximity to Colombia seems to correlate with higher cocaine seizures, which may explain in part why Mexico is near the bottom.
These misconceptions show how complex it is to minimize the damage done by addiction, organized crime, and impunity all along the routes that lead from coca and poppy fields to U.S. neighborhoods. There is no magic solution, like eradicating farmers’ plants, building high walls, cracking down on street gangs, or legalizing without tight regulation. The past 40 years’ experience points to less flashy strategies, among them: breaking corrupt links between states and organized crime through judicial reform; creating economic and civic opportunities in violence-prone territories; bringing a civilian state presence to abandoned zones where illicit crops are cultivated; reforming police and prisons; and expanding access to treatment at home. Pursuing these strategies requires patience, a long-term commitment, and a willingness to measure the right indicators—without being led away by misconceptions.